Write Your Book Proposal E-Course
Starts September 9, 2013
For many writers and experts who’d like to write a nonfiction book, putting together the book proposal is the most intimidating – yet most important – part of the process. Veteran book author Jennifer Lawler’s six-week e-course will walk you through every step of the way, from idea to finished proposal. This class is offered just two times per year, in March and September.
For complete information about this class, click here.
Book Proposal Boot Camp
Write your book proposal in a weekend!
June 15th and 16th, 2013!
My popular book proposal class usually takes place over the course of six weeks. But I’m offering a new approach – Book Proposal Boot Camp! This is a virtual class – everything takes place via email and online – that will take place over just one weekend.
For complete information about this class, click here.
I often get anxious emails from authors who want to write about a certain subject but find that many books on the matter have already been published. I always tell such authors to take a deep breath and remember that your book idea doesn’t have to be unique. There is plenty of room in the world for new voices, contrary ideas, different approaches, and fresh angles on a well-known subject.
Many proposals that start with the line, “No one has ever written a book on this subject until now,” are immediately rejected. Why? Because the editor assumes that you haven’t done your homework, or there’s no audience for your book, or the idea isn’t big enough for a book – it’s actually a magazine article.
The key is in distinguishing your book from others like it. What makes your book different and better? And how does this benefit your audience?
Unless you’re writing a textbook that you’re assiging to your students, no one has to read your book. So if reading your book is a difficult and frustrating task, no one (except those students) will do it.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? Book editors know this, which is why they prize writers who can communicate ideas clearly and in a friendly, accessible way.
That doesn’t mean you have to use only one-syllable words. It does mean that you need to present your ideas in a logical and approachable format. Readers expect you to anticipate questions and concerns they will have, and to use straightforward, active language and concrete suggestions.
For nonfiction writers, using case studies and anecdotes can be crucial to making material meaningful to readers. Apply your ideas to real world situations so readers can visualize them.
Most important, have beta readers review your work and let you know where they’re getting hung up.
How do you make your book stand out from others like it? First, you have to identify what other authors have done right with their books. Then, you need to make sure your book shares the positives — but has a unique approach, information that competition doesn’t have, or other benefits that are missing in the competition.
1. Study best-sellers or top-selling books in your subject matter. How is each book written? How is the content arranged? What is the tone, design, audience, length?
2. Read reviews and reader comments about the books. What are people identifying as the strengths and weaknesses? Use this in your own process.
3. Ask your friends and colleagues what they read–and why.
4. For each book you plan to use in your competitive analysis, jot down notes describing each competing title in just a few sentences. Think in terms of how you’ll make your book better than the competing title.
5. Make it clear why your book will appeal to readers, even if they have a similar title already on their shelves.
6. Ask colleagues for feedback. Show them your competitive analysis and ask them if they can identify how your book will be different from the competition–and if they can say why your book will appeal to its audience.
7. Most important, use the information you unearth. Don’t have a preconceived notion of what you think your book should look like.
To be a successful book author, you have to think about your audience from the very beginning. And by that I mean the very beginning–at the inception of your idea, you should be asking yourself questions about who will want to read what you’ve written.
Here are some steps to make the process of finding your audience less daunting:
1. Think of your work in big terms. You’re leaving a legacy–something you want to be proud of. What is that legacy going to be?
2. Ask yourself what your message is. Do you believe wholeheartedly in your message? People can spot insincerity.
3. Find out what makes your audience tick. What moves them and motivates them? You have to care about your audience to succeed.
4. Consider where you’ll reach them. Where are they? How can you connect with them?
5. Commit to your message and your project. It takes significant dedication and perseverance to succeed in the book business. But you really can do it!
As you know, nonfiction books are sold by proposal, not complete manuscript. An editor needs to be confident that you will write the book well; publishing a book is always a financial risk for a publisher, and providing a compelling sample chapter will help convince the powers-that-be that you–and your book–are worth taking a risk on. You’ll want to impress the editor with a sample chapter (or chapters) that convey your message in a friendly, entertaining way.
Some agents or editors will ask for as many as three sample chapters. I usually recommend starting with one and seeing what kind of feedback you get. There’s no point in spending the time it will take to write three sample chapters only to find that you’re on the wrong track. An agent who is interested in your proposal may have suggestions for improving your project; if you are not wedded to your approach, you will show the kind of flexibility that will help you succeed in publishing.
Your sample chapter should showcase both your voice and the content of your book. Pick a chapter that will allow you to do this well. You don’t have to write the first chapter, if it is not representative of the rest of the book. Choose the most engaging material to write about. And make sure that what you write matches the chapter outline in your book!
As I know I’ve said, I get a lot of “I wish I could get as much done as you do!” comments. I am never quite sure how I should respond to these. The “I wish I could” is invariably followed by
“but.” But I have a day job, but I have a kid, but I have a hobby.
I have these things, too, in their most demanding aspects, but that has never stopped me, or, rather, it has never stopped me for long. So when people say, “I wish …” my response is always, “You can!” And because I am a problem solver, I show them how.
But long experience has taught me that people aren’t really asking for my tips about how I don’t watch television, or how I have learned how not to check email every ten minutes when I’m working on an important project, or how every other weekend is unplugged at my house.
And I get it. I wish I were as slender as my friend Kelly, but I don’t actually want to give up my berry pie to get there. I just don’t. I know how Kelly has fought the war against the next size up, and it would require a lot of work that I am frankly uninterested in doing. So when people say, “I wish I ….” I’m inclined to think it is about wishing, not about action plans.
But this would be a fairly pointless post if I were going to leave it at that. So I am, in fact, going to give you my very best tip, just in case you want it. And that tip is to find the one big thing that would make a difference and just do that.
The one big thing that if you did it, you would be a lot closer to where you want to be. It’s getting your retirement contributions deducted directly from your paychecks so you don’t have to think about it. It’s hiring a personal trainer to get your butt into action. It’s … turning off the television and spending that time on your WIP.
For me the one big thing is devoting the first two hours of the day to my writing. I don’t care what else is on the agenda, the first two hours of the day are for me to get the creative work done. The sky could be falling, and often is, and I still do the work every morning. Every damned morning.
What is your one big thing?
I was thinking about my inner critic in light of the fact that I am nearly finished with a novel I have been in process with for about a year. So you know what that means: rejections up ahead! Of course, it is entirely possible for me to avoid the rejections by continuing to work on the novel. A person can work on a novel indefinitely and feel like she is making progress when really she is just stalling.
So. Over the weekend, I made what I thought would be the final pass on the novel. I knew I needed a more satisfying ending, and I worked one out, and I knew I needed to fix the first chapter, and I fixed it, and then I printed the complete manuscript (I like to get the feel for a novel on the page, not just the computer screen) and when I re-read it, I discovered that the whole thing sucked from beginning to end.
Now, you may wonder why I hadn’t noticed this before. After all, I have been working on the novel for a year and I’ve been publishing for more than fifteen years, and you’d think a professional would notice a thing like that. You may also wonder if I was deeply alarmed by this diagnosis. I can assure you I was not. That is because I Have Been Here Before. And in fact, “OMG! This novel SUCKS EGGS!” seems to be an inevitable part of the process for me.
I hope it is not for you, but from my admittedly nonscientific survey of writer friends, it is likely that, if you are a writer, you suffer from this malady yourself, at least now and again.
Here is what I do. I read the novel with pen in hand, taking copious notes. This is a discouraging process, because my inner critic cannot help jeering at me (“You mean you did not NOTICE that you used the SAME ridiculous plot contrivance TWICE in one novel when ONCE would have been too much?”) but I let my inner critic have her say. I don’t care how savage she gets. I note it all down, and then I cry quietly into my pillow for a while.
After that, I put my notes away and I don’t look at the novel for at least two weeks. I don’t try to fix anything that’s wrong with it. Then, when I am feeling more sane, I get out the novel and the notes, and I make the revisions the book really needs. Then I’m done. I mean really done, with just one more read-through for typos before I lay in chocolate and wine to get through the rejection process.
How do I know that? How do I know that *this* round of revisions is the last? I know because of the viciousness of my inner critic, and the hopelessness with which I view the manuscript. Earlier in the process, when I am not nearly done, I feel a lot more optimistic. (“Oh, there’s a plot hole! I can fix that in a jiffy! Who gives a rat’s ass about this character? Well, I’ll just add a few charming foibles and we’ll be all set.”)
I know this about myself and the process because I have been through the process before and sometimes I have come up short—I stopped too soon. Other times I did not, and someone sent me a contract and a check. But if I don’t eventually stop, I can’t get that contract and that check. So the key is to reach the point of existential despair, and then I know I’m set.
Your process may vary.
In my many years as a book author and freelancer, I have met hundreds of writers, professionals and wannabes, and it has struck me that we tend to do one of these two things, neither of which is in our best interest:
- We don’t put our work out into the world. We are waiting for some future moment when all will be perfect with the work and ourselves. That time will never come, but knowing that doesn’t stop us from waiting.
- We put our work out into the world before it’s ready. By this I mean taking shortcuts to get our work out into the world. Thinking, “This is wonderful and ready!” and hitting send and then finding out that no one agrees with you is one thing. Thinking, “Eh, close enough” and hitting send is another.
I see this type of thing happening a lot when people decide to self-publish. It’s not that I don’t completely understand the whole “I can avoid rejection this way” mindset, or that I don’t understand that it may be the only way a good book will actually see the light of day, or any of a
hundred reasons why people make this choice. I don’t quibble with those reasons.
My argument is that taking a shortcut because otherwise you will have to spend time getting better at the work does you no good in the long run. If your goal is to just have 70,000 words with your name out there in the world, then by all means, shortcuts are a fine way to get there. If you are trying to be a good writer, or a good anything, then you need to be aware of the trap of the shortcut.
It isn’t only in self-publishing versus traditional publishing where I see this mistake. I cannot count the number of people who are dissatisfied with their current agents (and for very good
reasons, not just the usual angst over the advance should have been huger) but who don’t do anything about it because then they would have to find another agent. And not only would that mean time spend trying to find one, but maybe they would have to step up their work a notch to catch someone’s eye. It’s easier to stick with the status quo.
Or nonfiction writers who think hiring a publicist will get them out of the work of building a platform and doing publicity (I think publicists are great, but hiring one doesn’t mean your work
as an author is done).
I struggle with this myself, a lot more than I would like to admit. In the end, I have learned to ask myself the key question: “Am I considering this because it’s easy or because it’s the right thing for my work?”